Over the years I’ve sometimes complained about “internet Austrians.” Larry White, who teaches at George Mason University, is definitely not an internet Austrian. Russ Roberts at Econtalk has a very good podcast interview of Larry (designated “guest”), and also provides a written summary (I’m not sure if it’s exactly verbatim.) Here’s the portion on GDP targeting that starts a bit after the 40 minute mark:
Guest: Many constraints are better than no constraint. And so, a popular constraint which a lot of central banks have adopted in the last 30 years is an inflation target. And it seems to me that that’s better than no constraint. And the Fed has adopted an inflation target now, explicitly; except that the Fed adopted it, rather than Congress imposing it on the Fed. So the Fed could abandon it at any time. It’s not a constraint in the same way as a legislatively- or Constitutionally even better-imposed constraint. But I’m persuaded by arguments in the volume and elsewhere that as far as fastening a rule on the Fed, a nominal income rule would be better, one that says– Russ:Explain how that would work. Guest: Yeah. So, what the Fed should be concerned about is the total amount of spending in the economy, not just the stock of money and not just the price level. Guest: And not the interest rate or the overnight Federal Funds rate. Guest: Certainly not interest rates, that’s right. But what that would mean is if there isn’t any additional hoarding going on, or any dishoarding going on, then the Fed just pursues even money growth. But if people want to, for whatever reason, want to hold money–they want to hold more money balances relative to their spending, then the Fed should supply the additional money that people want to hold, because the alternative is that spending drops off; and that has real repercussions that we’re better off avoiding. It’s true that if the price level adjusted instantly, the market would clear– Russ:It would be irrelevant– Guest: and we’d be fine. But prices are sticky, I think is a fact about the world we are living in. Russ: Well, and information is imperfect. A bunch of people show up at your store; you don’t know if they are there because they have more money in their pocket or less desire to hoard money, keep money, or whether your product is really great. So you could make a lot of real mistakes in the short run– Guest: That’s right– Russ: trying to figure out what’s going on. You can’t ever figure out what’s going on. So you will inevitably make mistakes. So, the argument I think is it would be better if what I saw coming into my store was real rather than nominal–that would be one way to put it, right?Guest: That’s right. And actually stabilizing nominal income is a better way of reducing that signaling problem that people have, that sellers of goods have, than stabilizing the price level. So, some people who want to stabilize the price level acknowledge this in the case of an adverse supply shock. So, there’s an oil price rise, let’s say, and the United States is an oil-importing country. The price of oil goes up; the price of gasoline goes up; the price of things made with oil go up. If you want to stabilize the price level, you have to push other prices down so that the average level of prices doesn’t rise. But the rise in the price of things made with oil is providing information. It’s not clear why you want to cloud that information by pushing other prices down, because that means a tight monetary policy, tighter than people expected. Russ: At least in the short run. Guest: So you’re hitting the economy with a double whammy. It’s got a real shock and now it’s got a monetary shock on top of that. Both of them negative. And some people who favor a stable price level will say, ‘Okay, yeah, we grant it in that case.’ But then they should also grant it in the other case. If you have an increase in the productivity of the economy, either a positive supply shock or improvements in technology, improvements in labor productivity or total factor productivity, you should let the prices of those particular goods that are now being produced more cheaply, let those prices fall. Don’t try to offset that by raising other prices. Russ:Is that going to happen naturally? An oil price shock doesn’t cause inflation; the Fed wouldn’t have to do anything. Or are you talking about in the short run, when the signals are confused, right? Guest: Yeah. Russ: Those prices are going to have to fall–the Fed doesn’t have to drive down the other prices. They are going to go down anyway, on their own, right? Guest: Oh. Eventually they’ll go down on their own if people are spending more on oil. Russ: Yeah. Guest: Depends on the elasticity of demand for oil. But if they are spending more on oil, right–they’ll be spending less on other things. Russ: So the Fed wouldn’t intervene there. To me, the issue is just measuring price indices accurately in a time where we are blessed to live, where quality is changing every day. Every day, almost, the world is getting better and the products are getting better. And so assessing what’s actually happening, the overall price level, seems to be much more difficult than it was 25, 50 years ago, when the economy was much more static. So to me the question is, given that uncertainty, that measurement uncertainty, is nominal GDP (Gross Domestic Product) targeting–are they going to be better? I’m not sure. I’m not sure it makes any difference. I’m not sure that really gets around that. Guest: Yeah, it actually is easier on that score, because you don’t need to know the right price index to do it. Russ: You don’t need to, but the question is are you still–are you doing the right thing? Guest: Yeah. I think for the reasons we talked about earlier. It is a problem if you want to stabilize the price level that you have to take account of quality changes, and that’s difficult. There are all kinds of, as you’ve been saying, quality changes that goods experience. So, if it’s a simple thing like your tire lasts 60,000 miles instead of 40,000 miles, you can make an adjustment. But what if it gives you a better ride? How do you adjust for that? Russ: What if it has a microwave oven in it? While you’re driving along? How do you weight that? Guest: So, some people are under the misapprehension that it’s harder to stabilize or to target nominal income because it’s the product of real income and the price level. But that’s actually not how it works. First the statistical authorities gather information on nominal income and then they derivereal income by dividing by a price level. Russ: Which they also have to derive.Guest: Which they have to construct by going out with clipboards and writing down prices and then trying to make adjustments for quality changes. So you save yourself that trouble if you are just looking at total spending.
Notice Larry’s emphasis on the symmetry in the argument that NGDP targeting is better than price level targeting. This suggests that there are times where you want to undershoot the average inflation rate because productivity is growing fast. His comments can be seen (I think) as an implied criticism of Paul Krugman’s recent claim that monetary policy was not too easy in the late 1990s, as inflation was pretty much on target. I don’t think money was far too easy at that time, but given the very strong productivity growth during the tech boom, somewhat tighter money would have been appropriate, and of course easier money in 2008 when oil prices soared but NGDP did poorly.
HT: Michael Byrnes